News of the passing of Football Commissioner Bert Bell and a question which came to me in the mail that same day combined to recall a bridge hand of long ago which will serve perhaps as Bert's bridge epitaph. In the days when I could ill afford such blows, this same hand very nearly served as my own.
I first saw Bert Bell in action on the gridiron at the Polo Grounds on November 8, 1919, when he was captain and quarterback of the University of Pennsylvania football team in its historic game against the Big Green of Dartmouth. It was in the days when the Ivy League was enjoying its heyday, and the Red and Blue lineup contained many illustrious names, not the least of which was Lou Little, who subsequently served as coach of Columbia for more than a quarter of a century. In what was regarded as a staggering upset, the Dartmouth Indians scalped their highly rated Quaker adversaries, winning by a score of 20-19, which put an end to a very busy and harrowing day for the late commissioner. On the victorious team was a sturdy guard, "Swede" Youngstrom, who became a regular member of our bridge junto in the days after his graduation.
Ask me the color of Bert Bell's hair and I cannot answer—in this case it isn't my memory that is at fault. At the Racquet Club and the Penn AC, where we frequently played, there were no ladies in the cast, so that some of the social amenities were not always observed. Bert Bell did not impress me as a man of many superstitions, but on one point he was adamant: he refused to play bridge with his head uncovered. He also preferred to play with a minimum of convention in his bidding, and he did not always conform even to that minimum. If this made him a somewhat difficult partner, it also made him a difficult opponent, as you will soon observe.
There is no denying that most people, even in those early contract days about a quarter century ago, had become convinced of the virtue of opening the bidding in their longest suit. But it was equally incontrovertible that South's spades were stronger in high cards than his hearts, and also that they included 100 honors. It may be that latterly, in his law-enforcing role of football commissioner, Bert would have opened the bidding with one heart. But in those days, as the director of a then shaky gridiron enterprise known as the Philadelphia Eagles, he would and did bid one spade.
Although I would prefer to hold a bit more strength in the other major—hearts—my high-card strength in the West hand seemed to justify a takeout double of one spade at my first opportunity and a business double of six spades at my second. I was right, but I was also wrong.
In justification of Bert's slam bid, I must point out that this was in the days before Mr. Blackwood had presented his ace-showing four no-trump convention, so it is academic that this was also in the days before Bell would have accepted such constraint. The fact is that a void in North's hand would have been just as good as an ace. And so it proved in this case.
The possibility of a void, in fact, deterred me from opening either of my aces. It seemed so much safer to open from the solid sequence in clubs and wait to see which ace would come home. But it turned out that the answer, after that ill-fated club lead, was "neither."
Bert let the king of clubs come around to his ace, discarding dummy's singleton heart. He then put through the king of hearts, trumping my ace in dummy. Next he returned to his hand with a trump and continued with the heart suit. When my 10 dropped, he was able to discard all five of dummy's diamonds, so he never lost a trick. The small slam, doubled and made with an overtrick, cost us 2,060 points (750 for the slam, 50 for making contract, 200 for the over-trick, 360 for the doubled trick score, and 700 for the rubber). Bert was a man of few words, but as he chalked up the score, he broke the silence with, "You're lucky he [pointing at the dummy] didn't redouble."
And so I was. For though I know now that I could have set the hand by taking my two aces, I'm sure that doubled and redoubled I'd still have opened a club.
That leaves unanswered only the question submitted by mail to which I referred earlier. It was: "Is it correct to lead an ace against a slam bid?" You'll find my answer in the customary "extra trick."